Prigozhin appears to be dead — and Putin’s grip on power is stronger than ever

Yevgeniy Prigozhin in Moscow on July 4, 2017. (Sergei Ilnitsky/AP)
Yevgeniy Prigozhin in Moscow on July 4, 2017. (Sergei Ilnitsky/AP)

The most fitting epitaph for Wagner Group founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin was delivered by the shotgun-wielding hit man Omar Little on “The Wire”: “You come at the king, you best not miss”. There’s still much we don’t know for certain (and might never know), but that pearl of wisdom was confirmed by Prigozhin’s apparent death Wednesday after a private plane he was on reportedly crashed north of Moscow.

Prigozhin came for “the king” in the Kremlin — Vladimir Putin — exactly two months before his death. In late June, Prigozhin claimed his mercenaries were only marching on Moscow to oust Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff of the armed forces, both of whom he accused, in profane terms, of mismanaging the war in Ukraine and providing insufficient support to Wagner fighters. But an armed rebellion in Russia was a clear challenge to Putin himself, and he looked surprisingly vulnerable when he failed to crush the Wagner mutiny by force after having denounced the group’s leaders as traitors.

With Russian forces hardly rushing to take up arms on behalf of his regime, and Wagner troops only 120 miles from Moscow, Putin had to agree to a humiliating deal brokered by his crony, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, that allowed Prigozhin and his henchmen to escape seemingly unpunished.

The impression of Putin’s weakness was reinforced when Prigozhin, after temporarily relocating to Belarus, popped up back in Russia last month. Prigozhin’s hubris appeared to be undiminished since his failed revolt. On Monday, Prigozhin appeared in a Wagner video from what appeared to be some location in Africa; he bragged that he was continuing to make “Russia even greater on every continent”.

But on Wednesday, the private jet on which Prigozhin was traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg reportedly crashed, killing everyone on board. Wagner-linked Telegram channels said the aircraft had been shot down by Russian air defenses, and witnesses reported hearing two bangs shortly before the aircraft fell from the sky. It was probably no coincidence that Prigozhin met his end on the same day the Kremlin announced that Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who was close to Prigozhin, had been removed as commander of the Russian Air Force.

As CIA Director William J. Burns said last month, Putin is the “ultimate apostle of payback”.

What’s striking about Prigozhin’s apparent demise is that it lacked any of the ambiguity that normally accompanies the removal of those who run afoul of Putin. Commentators have sardonically referred to “Sudden Russian Death Syndrome”, when senior Russian officials and business executives mysteriously fall out of windows or commit “suicide” or simply die with no cause given — a trend that has only increased since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

But when it comes to Prigozhin, there should be little doubt about what happened: He was almost certainly executed as surely as if he had been shot by a firing squad in Red Square. That is how you hold on to power when you rule a gangster state.

No one with a trace of decency will shed any tears for Prigozhin: He was a petty criminal turned war criminal whose mercenaries were guilty of atrocities not only in Ukraine but also in the Middle East and Africa.

But the demise of “Putin’s chef” (so named because he once ran food service companies for the Kremlin) is bad news for what it portends: namely, that Putin has maintained his stranglehold on power. Immediately after the Wagner revolt, I wrote that“Putin could ultimately emerge at the head of an even stronger dictatorship” or “his display of weakness might embolden other challengers to the throne … because his mystique of control has been shattered”. At the time, we didn’t know how the armed rebellion would affect Russian politics. Now we do: Putin appears as strong as ever, despite his bungled invasion of Ukraine.

It doesn’t seem to matter politically inside Russia that, according to U.S. intelligence, that country has lost as many as 120,000 troops in Ukraine and at least 170,000 have been wounded while utterly having failed to accomplish Putin’s initial objective of extinguishing Ukrainian independence. But even if the Russian people are not notably enthusiastic about the invasion of Ukraine — the Kremlin has to rely on mercenaries and prisoners to fight its battles — they remain, for the most part, fatalistic and quiescent. No challenge is emerging even from Putin’s inner circle.

That means Putin can continue to prosecute this evil war of aggression as long as his ammunition supply holds up — and no doubt he will, hoping that former president Donald Trump or some other Republican critic of Ukraine will win the White House and cut off Kyiv.

The surest way to end this conflict remains Ukrainian military success — and the Ukrainian counteroffensive, despite premature claims on the part of some in the West that it has already failed, continues to inch along in southern Ukraine. The West should give up wishful thinking that Putin is leaving office or planning to sue for peace anytime soon. The only path to peace lies on the battlefield — and the West would be well advised to redouble its support to the Ukrainian armed forces to improve their odds of success.

Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam”.

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